River Thieves

BlogRiverThievesMichael Crummey’s novel of nineteenth century Newfoundland is another epic worth reading.  John Peyton and his father live off the land and sea in a country where the native people, the Beothuk, have been driven away.  The story centres on an unsettling incident where two Beothuk men are killed by a group that includes the Peytons.  The fall out from this incident and how it affects both men is the central drama of the book.

The settlers see the land as theirs without any thought to who might have lived there before them.  One of the settlers is called Reilly who has himself been displaced since he is an Irishman who lived in London before being exiled to Newfoundland.  He is married to a Mi’kmaq woman so seems to have an affinity with First Nation people yet he is implicated in dark goings on with the Beothuk.  Then there is Cassie, a woman employed by the older Peyton as housekeeper.   John Peyton’s passion for her grows but he is inarticulate when faced with his belief that she is his father’s lover.

Themes of belonging, family, identity and inheritance run through the novel.  The idea of settlers as pioneers making their way in a new world are challenged when the consequences of their actions on the existing inhabitants are considered.

‘River Thieves’ by Michael Crummey is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

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Letters from Baghdad

I have long thought that Gertrude Bell’s life would make an amazing film.  Not only did she tread a path that few women had in her time but she also was another Westerner who fell in love with the East.  In the ways of the British Empire, she was in love with a part of the world that the British controlled and aware that there was a conflict in admiring the people who were subjugated to British rule. No matter how benevolent the rule was, it was rule nevertheless.

The documentary has Tilda Swinton reading extracts from her letters, usually to those ‘back home’ while archive footage and photographs of Bell are shown on-screen.  That we never see Tilda Swinton ‘as’ Gertrude Bell is a wise move since the photographic image of her is not affected.  Other people feature, people who knew her well, such as T. E. Lawrence, but these people are played by actors and we see them in black and white addressing the camera. Bell’s non- presence is all the more powerful because of this technique.

The story of the young woman who gained a First in History and who then turned East is a wonderful one.  Her knowledge of the people and places of the Middle East made her a key figure in the peace conference following the First World War.  Her role in setting up a country called Iraq before serving the government there in the field of archaeology illustrates well the way women were treated and viewed.  In many cases, she was referred to as a ‘right hand man’.  She understood she did not fit in when the social occasions were put on, organised as they were for the men and their wives.  She was not really accepted in either group.

The film is in black and white throughout making the archive footage stand out.  It is a very good introduction to the life of an amazing woman.  ‘Letters from Baghdad’ is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

 

 

 

Crusade

This 2007 novel by Elizabeth Laird is the type of adventure story I loved as a boy but with one difference: she tells the story from both sides of the crusade in which the forces of France and England attempted to take back control of Jerusalem from the Muslims.  Adam is an English boy whose mother dies leaving him to take work in the castle under his Lordship.  He starts as a dog boy but finds himself on his way to war when his Lord joins the Holy Crusade.  Salim is a son of a merchant but he has a deformity that sees him apprenticed to a Jewish doctor who is heading home to Jerusalem.  What the boys have in common is displacement from their families followed by involuntary involvement in a war.  What they also share is a conviction that their cause is just. They are, however, on other sides of the conflict so when they meet they do not see each other as allies or friends.

The strength of this novel is the parallel narrative.  We know, or can presume, that they will meet but under what circumstances?  Their journeys take them to Acre. Adam finds himself serving as a squire and Salim assists his doctor.  They should not meet except in battle but they do.

Elizabeth Laird uses her characters to explore this historical event from both sides.  With both sides believing their mission is a holy one, the idea of right and wrong is explored through the motivations of Salim and Adam.  The Jewish doctor allows the author to show the Crusade in the context of greater complexity as one faith against another. There is reference to historical figures such as King Richard and Saladin but the action is centred on the younger characters and it is the better for it.

 

 

 

Tales from Two Cities

I first read this book in 1988 when it read more as reportage than history.  Now, reading it again I am struck by how some things have changed but also by how much the issues remain relevant thirty years later.

BlogDervlaMurphyI read Dervla Murphy’s book about Northern Ireland before I moved on to this, her account of living in Bradford and then Birmingham in 1985. These were significant years in race relations in Britain.  In Bradford, the Ray Honeyford affair was causing rifts in the city between older white people and the growing population of Asians.  Honeyford was a headteacher with strong views about Bradford Council’s anti- racist policies.  His use of a right wing journal to express these views was unwise in the least and campaigns that I remember were set up to oust him from his post.  This made him something of a martyr figure for the right wing; Margaret Thatcher invited him to Downing Street to participate in an Educational forum!  Dervla Murphy found herself living in the very area where Honeyford was headmaster when it all blew up.  Her account of life there is reasoned and does not take sides; she is at pains to say she knows and likes both Honeyford and the leader of the campaign to oust him.  Here she records what she sees, knowing that as an observer she is also a participant.

This dual role has more impact when she moves on to Birmingham arriving in Handsworth just before the riots there.  Her time here is more dramatic.  She is both threatened and intimidated by groups who decide she can be nothing other than a police informer.  Her frequent use of her notebook to record what is happening around her leads only to further suspicion.

Dervla Murphy is a thoughtful observer.  She meets as many people as she can to gather their life stories as well as their insights into life in (what was then) modern Britain.  What emerges seems obvious now: there is no black point of view but many views.  The prejudices held by both sides are formed because of the lack of understanding and unwillingness to cross a divide.

BlogTalesTwoCitiesRe-reading the book is fascinating: the mid- 80s came back to me. I was clearer when I was younger about where I stood on all these issues.  Having re-read it, I can see that I have changed and, although my general political philosophy has not changed, I can see that life is more complicated than it can be painted by politicians.

Murphy uses the terms ‘Black’ and ‘Brown’ to make distinctions between the Afro- Caribbean and the Asians.  Mixed race children are discussed only in terms of problems; how will they cope in a world where they don’t fit in.  I suppose it is a victory that we have better umbrella terms for races and that children of mixed race are celebrated rather than seen as problems.

‘Tales from Two Cities’ is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

Osborne House is a Treasure House

In (or on) the Isle of Wight so I visited Osborne House for the first time in about thirty years.  I remember parts of my previous visit but did not remember the Durbar room, the most impressive addition to the house in Queen Victoria’s time!

BlogDuleepSinghpaintingI was on the lookout for the portrait of Duleep Singh having read the novel based on his life by Navtej Sarna.  The location of this painting by Winterhalter is significant as the boy Maharajah was taken under the wing of the Queen when he was taken away from the Punjab and his mother at the age of ten.

The painting was commissioned by Victoria using the services of German artist Franz Xaver Wintherhalter, a court painter who worked for European royalty.  This work is dated 1854.

Surrounding the portrait were other paintings of Indian people, mostly men, collected or commissioned by the Queen for her house. Her status as Empress of India is reflected by the fact that India came to her; she never visited India herself.   There are princes, military types and servants represented here with little differentiation by rank.  Their position is all due to ethnicity.

As is usual on visits such as this, I came away wanting to know more about the unsung parts of history.  The painting of the man with the long hair was intriguing because he was shared a name with Duleep Singh.  Victor Albert Jay Duleep Singh was his son and the godson of the Queen.  It was painted by Sydney Prior Hall and presented to the Queen by Duleep Singh at Christmas 1879.  Apparently, Her Majesty was much taken with the boy’s long hair but he had been given a short back and sides before attending school.  The painting was created with the help of a photograph that had been taken of him before his hair cut.

BlogVictorDuleep

The Ballad of East and West

This is a poem associated for ever with the classroom where I encountered it.  Like many poems fed to my teenage brain, it was only later that the point behind the poem made any sense to me.  The first two lines were the only ones I held on to so it was good to discover it again in later life and realise that the third and fourth lines of the opening stanza were the most important.

The Ballad of East and West

0h, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat;
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!

Kamal is out with twenty men to raise the Border side,
And he has lifted the Colonel’s mare that is the Colonel’s pride.
He has lifted her out of the stable-door between the dawn and day
And turned the calkins upon her feet, and ridden her far away.

Then up and spoke the Colonel’s son that led a troop of the Guides
Is there never a man of all my men can say where Kamal hides? “
Then up and spoke Mohammed Khan, the son of the Ressaldar:
“If ye know the track of the morning-mist, ye know where his pickets are.
“At dusk he harries the Abazai – at dawn he is into Bonair,
“But he must go by Fort Bukloh to his own place to fare.
“So if ye gallop to Fort Bukloh as fast as a bird can fly,
“By the favour of God ye may cut him off ere he win to the Tongue of Jagai.
“But if he be past the Tongue of Jagai, right swiftly turn ye then,
“For the length and the breadth of that grisly plain is sown with Kamal’s men.
“There is rock to the left, and rock to the right, and low lean thorn between,
“And ye may hear a breech-bolt snick where never a man is seen.”

The Colonel’s son has taken horse, and a raw rough dun was he,
With the mouth of a bell and the heart of Hell and the head of a gallows-tree.
The Colonel’s son to the Fort has won, they bid him stay to eat 
Who rides at the tail of a Border thief, he sits not long at his meat.
He’s up and away from Fort Bukloh as fast as he can fly,
Till he was aware of his father’s mare in the gut of the Tongue of Jagai,
Till he was aware of his father’s mare with Kamal upon her back,
And when he could spy the white of her eye, he made the Pistol crack.
He has fired once, he has fired twice, but the whistling ball went wide.
Ye shoot like a soldier,” Kamal said. ” Show now if ye can ride! 
It’s up and over the Tongue of Jagai, as blown dust-devils go
The dun he fled like a stag of ten, but the mare like a barren doe.
The dun he leaned against the bit and slugged his head above,
But the red mare played with the snaffle-bars, as a maiden plays with a glove.
There was rock to the left and rock to the right, and low lean thorn between,
And thrice he heard a breech-bolt snick tho’ never a man was seen.

They have ridden the low moon out of the sky, their hoofs drum up the dawn,
The dun he went like a wounded bull, but the mare like a new-roused fawn.
The dun he fell at a water-course – in a woeful heap fell he,
And Kamal. has turned the red mare back, and pulled the rider free. 
He has knocked the pistol out of his hand – small room was there to strive,
‘Twas only by favour of mine,” quoth he, ” ye rode so long alive:
“There was not a rock for twenty mile, there was not a clump of tree,
“But covered a man of my own men with his rifle cocked on his knee.
“If I had raised my bridle-hand, as I have held it low, 
“The little jackals that flee so fast were feasting all in a row.
“If I had bowed my head on my breast, as I have held it high,
“The kite that whistles above us now were gorged till she could not fly.”
Lightly answered the Colonel’s son: “Do good to bird and beast,
“But count who come for the broken meats before thou makest a feast.
“If there should follow a thousand swords to carry my bones away.
“Belike the price of a jackal’s meal were more than a thief could pay.
“They will feed their horse on the standing crop, their men on the garnered grain.
“The thatch of the byres will serve their fires when all the cattle are slain.
“But if thou thinkest the price be fair – thy brethren wait to sup,
“The hound is kin to the jackal-spawn – howl, dog, and call them up! 
“And if thou thinkest the price be high, in steer and gear and stack,
“Give me my father’s mare again, and I’ll fight my own way back! “

Kamal has gripped him by the hand and set him upon his feet.
“No talk shall be of dogs,” said he, “when wolf and grey wolf meet.
“May I eat dirt if thou hast hurt of me in deed or breath;
“What dam of lances brought thee forth to jest at the dawn with Death?”
Lightly answered the Colonel’s son: ” I hold by the blood of my clan: 
Take up the mare for my father’s gift – by God, she has carried a man!” 
The red mare ran to the Colonel’s son, and nuzzled against his breast; 
“We be two strong men,” said Kamal then, ” but she loveth the younger best.
“So she shall go with a lifter’s dower, my turquoise-studded rein,
“My ‘broidered saddle and saddle-cloth, and silver stirrup twain.”
The Colonel’s son a pistol drew, and held it muzzle-end,
“Ye have taken the one from a foe,” said he. ” Will ye take the mate from a friend? “
“A gift for a gift,” said Kamal straight; “a limb for the risk of a limb.
“Thy father has sent his son to me, I’ll send my son to him!” 
With that he whistled his only son, that dropped from a mountain-crest
He trod the ling like a buck in spring, and he looked like a lance in rest.
“Now here is thy master,” Kamal said, “who leads a troop of the Guides,
“And thou must ride at his left side as shield on shoulder rides.
“Till Death or I cut loose the tie, at camp and board and bed,
“Thy life is his – thy fate it is to guard him with thy head. 
“So, thou must eat the White Queen’s meat, and all her foes are thine,
“And thou must harry thy father’s hold for the peace of the Border-line.
“And thou must make a trooper tough and hack thy way to power 
“Belike they will raise thee to Ressaldar when I am hanged in Peshawur! “

They have looked each other between the eyes, and there they found no fault.
They have taken the Oath of the Brother-in-Blood on leavened bread and salt:
They have taken the Oath of the Brother-in-Blood on fire and fresh-cut sod,
On the hilt and the haft of the Khyber knife, and the Wondrous Names of God.

The Colonel’s son he rides the mare and Kamal’s boy the dun, 
And two have come back to Fort Bukloh where there went forth but one. 
And when they drew to the Quarter-Guard, full twenty swords flew clear
There was not a man but carried his feud with the blood of the mountaineer.
Ha’ done! ha’ done! ” said the Colonel’s son. ” Put up the steel at your sides!
Last night ye had struck at a Border thief – to-night ‘t is a man of the Guides! “

Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat;
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face though they come from the ends of the earth!

Rudyard Kipling

BlogKiplingEastWest

This is London

BlogThisisLondonHaving read Ben Judah’s excellent book on Russia under Putin, I was keen to read his insights into London in the twenty- first century.  As a Londoner, I am a keen Londonophile even though, like all enthusiasts, my affection is kept intact by no longer having to live there!

This is first class reportage of life in the capital as experienced by those on the fringes, politically and economically rather than geographically.  Apparently, over 40% of the population of London was born elsewhere in the world. Yet London remains a magnet and the route to the city is well worn by those with great hopes.

Ben Judah states that he needs to see things for himself.  He distrusts statistics.  So, in this book, he beds out for the night with rough sleepers near Hyde Park and meets people in diverse situations across the capital.  One of the most interesting interviewees was a policeman, offering his views from one side of the law.  His insights are made more interesting by the fact that he is Nigerian.

It becomes clear that there is a congregating of ethnic groups in particular corners, a fact that is articulated by many of the subjects interviewed here.  Sometimes this is for safety and companionship and other times it is the economics that keeps people in their place.

Judah does not often pass judgement on what he sees; he communicates his findings which are all based on what he encountered by crossing London.  At times, things seem grim yet this is still a city that welcomes people.  London is continually renewed by the injection of differing cultures.  The views of the migrants on the British are illuminating.

The interviews are thorough and Judah’s gift is to let people speak for themselves.  The stories they tell show that there are many Londons; some are places worth visiting and others you might wish to avoid.